- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Since the early 17th century and perhaps earlier, Jews have lived in the Caribbean, observing the Jewish dietary laws and celebrating the Jewish holidays, especially Passover.

Having typically escaped the Inquisition, they lived on almost every island. Many were active in sugar, chocolate and vanilla refining, while others were small shopkeepers. Today, remembrances of these island communities survive in abandoned synagogues and cemeteries.

Whenever I speak with Caribbean Jews, they mention Passover and how that is a time when everyone comes together. One of my favorite versions of Passover haroset — the fruit-and-nut dipping paste that symbolizes the mortar the Jews used to build structures for the Egyptians — comes from the island of Surinam.

This condiment, filled with seven fruits, including coconut, raisins, apples, apricots and cherry jam, was brought there by the Robles family, whose ancestors fled Spain for Holland at the time of the Inquisition and moved from there to Dutch colonies as sugar and spice merchants.

When I spoke many years ago with Mrs. Abraham Lopes Cardozo, the wife of the hazzan (cantor) of the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in New York and former minister of the Sephardic Congregation in Surinam, she told me her mother used cassava meal — from the tuberous starchy root — instead of matzo meal to bake sweet breads and cakes for Passover.

The cassava was first grated and washed, then dried in the sun for weeks. Once dried, it was ready to be mixed with other ingredients, just as we use commercial matzo cake meal.

Today, most Jews who visit the Caribbean come as tourists, but not all. Algerian-born Erick Struk visited St. Maarten about 15 years ago and didn’t love it. His uncle, who was retired, was living on nearby St. Barthelemy, a former French colony. Taking a small plane to visit him, Mr. Struk saw opportunities on this French-speaking island. He and his wife, Anna, now 36, who was born in Morocco, opened a store called Laurent Eiffel in the capital port town of Gustavia. You can’t miss this store — the only one in the harbor with a mezuzah, a small case containing a scroll of parchment that is nailed to the door post as a reminder of God’s presence and Commandments.

Today the Struks have four stores where they sell knockoffs of Hermes, Tod’s and other European designer handbags, all made in their factory in Milan. Because the store is open seven days a week, the two work very hard.

When Mrs. Struk’s mother visits the family of four — the Struks have two young boys — from Casablanca, she cooks Moroccan Jewish, but it isn’t easy. When Mrs. Struk needs a kosher chicken, she orders it one month in advance from the Bucherie, a “bio” store in St. Jean, which has them flown in from Canada.

Mrs. Struk’s specialties for community events include a Moroccan chicken and a fish dish, served for Friday night and also at Passover.

As Jewish food is regional, the type of fish used varies from country to country. It is made in Casablanca with sole, halibut and whiting. In my home in Washington, it’s made with flounder, rockfish, roughy or trout. On St. Barts, mahi-mahi is the fish of choice. Typically this dish calls for a whole fish, but these days, you can make it with steaks or even fillets.

Because it has always been difficult to get matzo in the Caribbean islands, Mrs. Struk’s customers from the United States send it to her.

St. Barts baked Moroccan mahi-mahi with peppers and potatoes

3 pounds mahi-mahi, rockfish or halibut or any other firm, white-fleshed fish

1 whole head garlic, peeled

½ cup vegetable oil

1 bunch cilantro

3 teaspoons sweet paprika

1 teaspoon hot paprika

½ teaspoon turmeric

4 large potatoes, peeled and sliced thin

1 red pepper, cut in matchsticks

1 green pepper, cut in matchsticks

2 pinches of saffron

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Cut the fish into 6 pieces. Place the garlic with the oil, all but 2 tablespoons of the cilantro, paprika, hot paprika and turmeric in a food processor, and pulse until mixed.

Spread a little of the oil mixture in the bottom of a 6-cup casserole like Le Creuset. Cover with the potato slices and then the pepper slices. Mix about 2 cups of water with the saffron and pour over the potatoes. Then sprinkle the rest of the oil and spice mixture on top, season with salt and pepper to taste, and bring to a boil.

Cover, reduce to a slow simmer and cook for about 20 minutes, until the potatoes are almost cooked. Then add the fish, pushing it down to submerge it in the liquid and potatoes, and simmer for about 10 more minutes or until just cooked. Remember that the fish continues cooking even after it is off the heat. Taste, adjust the seasonings, and serve in large soup bowls, sprinkled with the remaining 2 tablespoons of cilantro. Makes 6 servings.

Moroccan eggplant salad with pickled lemon

2 large eggplants (about 2 pounds)

2 tablespoons salt

Vegetable oil for frying

Juice of 1 lemon

4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

Dash of hot pepper or to taste

2 tablespoons diced preserved lemon

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Peel one of the eggplants and cut them both into ½-inch cubes. Toss them with the salt in a colander in the sink and allow to stand for 30 minutes. Rinse well with very cold water, squeeze the eggplant gently, and pat dry.

In a large frying pan, heat enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. In two batches, stir-fry the eggplant until golden on all sides, about 7 minutes per batch, adding more oil as needed. Drain well on paper towels.

Toss the eggplant with the lemon juice, garlic, cumin, paprika, hot pepper and preserved lemon in a serving bowl. Let sit in the refrigerator for a day to absorb the flavors. Just before serving, garnish with the parsley. Makes 6 servings.

Seven-fruit haroset from Surinam

8 ounces unsweetened coconut

8 ounces walnuts, chopped, or almonds, grated

1/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

8 ounces raisins

8 ounces dried apples

8 ounces prunes

8 ounces dried apricots

8 ounces dried pears

4 ounces cherry jam

1 cup sweet red wine, or according to taste

Place the coconut, walnuts or almonds, sugar, cinnamon, raisins, apples, prunes, apricots and pears in a large, heavy pot. Add water to cover by about 2 inches. Simmer over low heat, covered, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, adding small amounts of water periodically so that the mixture does not stick to the pot.

Cook for at least 60 minutes. When all the ingredients have come together, stir in the cherry jam. Let stand until cool. Add enough sweet wine to be absorbed by the haroset mixture. Refrigerate.

Makes about 5 cups.

Joan Nathan is the author of “The Foods of Israel Today,” “Jewish Cooking in America” and “The New American Cooking” (Knopf).

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